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Reading Between the Dots

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

IN MARY RAKOW'S THE MEMORY ROOM, THE PROTAGONIST, Barbara, while stuck in a stalled elevator, suffers an emotional collapse far out of proportion to the actual danger. In the weeks following this episode, long-suppressed moments of her childhood come back to her in life-threatening (and certainly sanity-threatening) jolts.

The daughter of two mentally ill parents, a sadistic mother and an intermittently psychotic father, Barbara has so far navigated through life by overachieving and gardening, and to good result: She's a professor at a seminary, has a boyfriend, a circle of loving friends, the respect of her colleagues. Barbara may be ideally positioned to face the intolerable and incomprehensible facts of her past, with the help of a sensitive psychologist. Yet even with all this support, it's a harrowing process, the result of which is always in question.

The Memory Room has been called a novel in verse, but that hardly indicates its actual form, which is not metered, rhymed or in stanzas. It's a more useful description of the sensibility at work: Rakow writes with a poet's consideration of the page, and seeds her narrative with the poetry of others, notably Paul Celan as well as passages from Psalms. The result is an idiosyncratic, often beautiful tour de force.

Rakow was born in Berkeley, attended Cal and UC Riverside, and received a doctorate from Boston University. An adult convert to Catholicism, she took her master's degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. The mother of three, Rakow lives in Manhattan Beach with her husband, Joel. She began writing The Memory Room in her early 40s, much of it as a member of Kate Braverman's writing group, Hard Words.

L.A. WEEKLY: Your background is primarily theological and academic -- was it literary as well?

MARY RAKOW: It was literary only to the extent of having, since childhood, a consistent exposure to the Bible in its King James Version. I did not read fiction or poetry until my mid-40s, after I started writing. I never aspired to "be a writer," and I still don't. I want to make sense of my world. For 10 years that meant, for me, gardening. Real, daily, serious, contemplative gardening as a way to empty myself.

Surely, though, you have literary influences.

I am still thinking about the Bible as I knew it -- two columns side by side on the page with the numbered chapters and verses, the names of each of the books contained ä in the Bible, the table of contents. These are forms and certainly not the forms of the original texts, the scrolls. Seeing written words organized in this way probably had an effect.

Also, the Bible, without apology and without effort, combines poetry, prose, law, narrative, biography. So it feels very natural to me to have between two covers of a single book, multiple books, multiple voices and multiple forms. You have Levitical law, gospel, psalm, creation myth, the anger of the prophets, all in one book. It never occurred to me that this would be a problem or that it was new or unique or creative or anything. I wrote The Memory Room so that what was on the page embodied what I felt inside and didn't ask myself these questions.

The Memory Room has been described as "a book in verse," but I would say that the novel's accessible, energetic prose is such that it incorporates and accommodates verse. How did you come up with this form?

I consciously changed the form, several times and quite radically, based on my sense of the world. This meant I had to change how the page looked so that when I looked at it there was no lying going on. For example . . . when I heard of these two young boys, a toddler and an infant, thrown over the bridge into the Los Angeles River in broad daylight, I could no longer write from one margin across the page to the right. It felt like a lie. I thought, Is this how the world is? Is this what I can say to that surviving toddler? And the resounding answer was, immediately and radically, No. From that point on, for several years, I wrote in what I called "dots" -- two or three lines of text running across the top inch of the otherwise all-white page. I wrote thousands of these and eventually grouped them by color. I tied the piles with ribbon. Red, blue, yellow, black, white, green, blue, indicating their emotional timbre. I relied on these emotional tones when I had to begin ordering my dots into the convention of, you know, Page 1, Page 2.

My ordering of the colored dots was like musical composition. Hearing the sounds, the tones, what should come next, soundwise, emotionwise. With music I can think in a linear way and was able to order my thousands of fragments by thinking symphonically, as one who has a full orchestra at one's disposal. Earlier in the writing, I felt the text as a solo piece for cello. Then I felt it as a concerto -- you know, solo instrument, perhaps again cello, with small orchestra. It was only with the Celan and the Psalm texts I felt I had the full orchestra.

That early ordering was a huge task for me to get the sequence right and took me probably over a year, many trials. I do not care at all about plot. I rarely read novels, and when I do I never read them start to finish. I just read around in them for texture. The linear movement of time is totally uninteresting to me, and "stories" such as Barbara's exist in my mind as a single held moment. I like Proust. To me, it is like this woolen texture, very static, very pleasing. How it kind of hovers there, humming.

How did Celan's poetry come in? I have to say that you contextualize his difficult verse in a way that makes him far more available and clear to me than in any of my previous attempts to read him.

About five years into the writing, when I thought the book was finished, I attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute held each year at Skidmore College. John Felstiner, Celan's principal biographer in English and one of his principal translators, gave a presentation on Celan, including a tape of Celan reading "Todesfuge."

I felt a deep resonance between Celan and Barbara. I began working little phrases from his work into Barbara's thinking and felt it was just a perfect fit, a perfect dialogue between them, a kind of fugue or counterpoint.

The Memory Room is a deeply interior book -- so much so, it's as if Barbara's life is seen through some tough, cloudy membrane. The specific facts of her life seem too sharp to touch -- or they're touched upon so lightly, I missed some of them. As a reader, I kept wondering specific things: What was Barbara's relationship with Daniel -- were they dating or married? What did she teach? What happened with her parents -- did they divorce? Did she lose track of her father? And what was the matter with them, anyway? As stubbornly as these questions surfaced for me, I understood that the novel was not about answering them, or was about this very vagueness and reluctance (or inability) to face such questions head-on. But this, for you, must have been a tough, interesting narrative decision.

No, these weren't tough decisions, actually. I know the answers to these questions -- Barbara dated and loved and loves Daniel, but they did not marry, and so on. But these matters weren't driving concerns. I felt most of the time almost overwhelmed by the task I did feel was the job of the book -- how do you make sense of moral evil? How do you make sense of your life if people who are supposed to love you also totally seem to want you dead? This is the question the boy thrown over the bridge will always have. Once you are dealing on this level, this primal, psychologically devastating level, the other things really don't matter at all.

I don't read the newspapers, because I find the juxtapositions on the page just too schizophrenic -- you know, the Lord & Taylor ad opposite a story about genocide above a Tiffany ad for a pavé diamond bracelet across from a story about ducks found dead in a public pond. If I read in this way I will lose my ability to feel completely.

I found myself, at first, breathlessly reading The Memory Room -- I hate to admit this -- to find out just what Barbara's parents did to her with those dental tools; it seemed as if Barbara's memories were about to surface into bright daylight, like a grim mystery about to be solved. But a hundred pages into the book I realized that no such revelation was forthcoming. And this was okay because other elements in the narrative -- the sheer beauty of the prose and images -- were propelling me by then. Were you aware of this initial propulsion?

Actually, I have/had no interest in creating a kind of suspense for the reader by withholding information and creating a kind of fake coy mystery. If there is suspense in the story, it is, I hope, over the question of whether or not Barbara is going to make it. Barbara has this strength inside. Many people do not. Infants, if they do not get simply enough touch and eye contact, can just wither. They "fail to thrive." So Barbara, while being rather strong and smart and wealthy enough to have private therapy and a safe home and garden and all those things, an education, she speaks also, I hope, for those less fortunate. I mean, she cuts out these stories from the newspaper and sews them together as a way of hooking herself to others who are also in pain. If a reader sees her story rooted in the larger human predicament, then I will feel I've succeeded as a writer.


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